Francisco Eppens: Stamp Designer
(Published: November, 2010, Volume 10, Number 2, Issue #31) (Table Of Contents)
(Author: Marcus Winter)


This article was originally published in the Mexiacana by the Mexico Elmhurst Philatelic Society International (MEPSI) stamp club (http://www.mepsi.org/) and we the MPI greatly thank MEPSI for allowing us to reproduce the article about Francisco Eppens Helguera who was the designer of the 1939 malaria issue from Mexico.

On March 29th, 2009, the Philatelic Museum of Oaxaca (MUFI) inaugurated an exhibit of postage and revenue stamps designed by Mexican artist Francisco Eppens Helguera for the TIEV (Talleres de Impresión de Estampillas y Valores), the printing shop of the Mexican Federal nment's Ministry of the Treasury (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público or SHCP). The exhibit consisted of approximately 700 items lent to the MUFI by the TIEV and displayed to the public for the first time: original inked drawings for stamps, engraved metal clichés used to form the plates, and numerous complete sheets of revenue and postage stamps. The revenues are particularly remarkable since many of the 500- and 1000-peso values are rarely seen, even as individual stamps. Although the exhibit ended in August, the Mufi published an attractive book with black and white photos of some of Eppens's drawings, color plates of many sheets, and an essay on Eppens (in Spanish) by art historian Julieta Ortiz Gaitán. (The book is available from the MUFI for $17.00 dollars, which includes shipping to the US. Contact the MUFI for more information at: info@mufi.org.mx.).

Eppens was born in 1913 in San Luis Potosi. His father was ill with tuberculosis so the family moved to Mexico City. At the age of 14, Eppens enrolled in the San Carlos Academy, the national art school. He worked as a publicist designing posters and advertisements for various companies and in 1935 was hired by the TIEV where he worked for 16 years as a stamp designer. Many of Eppens's stamps are well known to collectors of Mexico: for example, the 1 centavo Mosquito Man (1939), the Quitemos La Venda! issue (1945) to promote literacy, and the 10 centavo orange Olmec head in the Architecture and Archaeology series (1950).

Eppens's contribution to Mexican philately is unique: no other designer produced so many stamps in his own distinctive artistic hand, capturing so well the flavor of his nation and his times. Eppens's stamps are especially attractive because his figurative style is recognizable throughout his work. Perhaps only the Mexico Exporta issue comes close to Eppens's designs in attractiveness and consistency, though the Exporta stamps lack the creativity and individuality of Eppens's stamps.

Eppens is held in high regard as a painter and muralist. Some of his work is considered Art Deco style (deco from decoration) which emphasizes streamlining and elements of modernism, though at the same time it transmits messages of egalitarianism and justice, in the Mexican muralist tradition of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Eppens's stamp designs reflected Mexico's political climate of the 1930s and 40s. This is especially true of his early revenues which were based on texts from President Lázaro Cárdenas's speeches stressing the creation of national identity and progress though the cooperation and hard work of farmers, miners, factory workers and machines. The prominent hammer and sickle motif lends a socialist flavor to some designs. In a few cases, still affixed to the cards with the sample sheets conserved in the TIEV archives, are the written texts which Eppens was charged with converting into visual expressions.

In 1938, the TIEV changed the format of commemorative stamps, first to vertically-oriented rectangular stamps with the issue of the XVI Congreso Internacional de Planificación y Habitacin and in 1939 to a large square format for the airmail issue of Levantamiento de los Censos Nacionales 1939-1940. Various subsequent issues designed by Eppens used the square format: the IV Centenarios de la Fundación de Campeche (1940), Cambio de Poderes (1940), II Conferencia Interamericana de Agriculture (1942) and Reconstrucción del Teatro de la Paz en San Luis Potosi (1945), among others. The new format resembled a miniature painting, and one wonders if it was adopted to show off Eppens's talent. Also, in some cases a separate design was used for each stamp in a series, again emphasizing the artist's abilities.

Eppens's work in the TIEV was not just artistic. Stamp themes were chosen by people in the federal nment and used to communicate messages to the public. For example, Eppens's 1 centavo Mosquito Man stamp was issued in 1939, 1944 and 1947 for the nment's anti-malaria campaign and the stamp was required on all letters. The 12 centavo Libertad stamp (1948) is a figurative representation of a woman marching or running with a raised torch and surrounded in the upper portion by stars.

Symbolism is clear in Eppens's stamps: the Cambio de Poderes (1940) issue, depicting a strong man at a ship's helm, was issued for the taking of office of the new President, Manuel Ávila Camacho. In this case, a single design is repeated, although colors and values change. Symbolism and propaganda are particularly evident in the revenue stamps. While Eppens's postage stamp designs tend to be decorative and commemorative of events and people, the revenues are political. The format is usually vertical-rectangular and stamps often portray idealized powerful men and full-bodied women; peasants and workers are distinguished by their hats and caps or by their hand tools. Emphasis is on achieving growth and improvement of society and the state through the unity of peasants, workers, machinery and education.

The difference between motifs on the postage stamps and the revenues is interesting. Postage stamps were used by the public and shown to the world, through the mail and through philately. Fiscal stamps were used internally, especially by business men, store owners, landlords and others who supposedly had to show receipts for financial transactions. The propaganda on the fiscal stamps seems to have been directed toward the people of means, rather than the payee who simply kept the stamp stub or talón.

In his book on Eppens as an artist, Francisco Eppens: El Hombre, Su Arte y Su Tiempo (1988, Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, Mexico, D.F.), Ramón Valdiosera Berman lists over 100 postage stamps designed by Eppens. In addition, he lists another 50 or so stamps for which Eppens supervised the design format. Valdiosera notes that Eppens received recognition for his designs and was credited with reviving philatelists's interest in Mexican stamps. In 1938, Scott's Monthly Journal selected an Eppens stamp as one of the world's ten best stamp designs of the year. In 1944, the Collector's Club exhibited some of Eppens's stamps and designs in New York. Among Eppens's last designs are some values of the 1950 Architecture and Archaeology series, including the Olmec head mentioned earlier, the Dance of the Half Moon from Puebla (1 peso airmail), the Feather Dance from Oaxaca (10 centavo airmail), and the Tamuín sculpture (40 centavo airmail), which, according to Valdiosera, Eppens considered his best design.

Attendants at the MUFI opening were honored by the presence of the artist's son, architect Rodrigo Eppens, who talked about some of his father's work after leaving the TIEV. Francisco Eppens, who died in 1990, is known for his murals at the National University and other institutions in Mexico City as well as paintings and sculptures. In 1968, he was asked to design the official, standardized Mexican seal with the eagle on the cactus, which by now has been reproduced millions of times on coins, documents, the flag and other federal nment media, and is still used today.